From actively spurning big donors to calling out corporate malefactors by name, there is much about Bernie Sanders’s political style that separates him from the liberal politicians who dominate the Democratic Party. But among his most heterodox traits is a willingness to bring his arguments to skeptical or even right-leaning audiences: a practice he’s engaged in on more than one occasion.
In 2015, Sanders addressed a crowd at Liberty University — the largest evangelical Christian university in the world. More recently, he participated in a televised town hall hosted by Fox News. Both events, perhaps understandably, elicited controversy from some on the left. Nevertheless, in both cases, Sanders successfully exposed a new audience to his ideas and emerged unscathed, drawing cheers and approval from corners where they might otherwise have been unthinkable. By the end of Fox’s town hall event in April, he actually seemed to have won over the majority of attendees with his arguments for democratic socialism, against oligarchy, and in favor of Medicare For All.
This week, Sanders repeated the strategy by appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience: a hugely popular but decidedly non-left-leaning podcast that features an eclectic buffet of guests ranging from fairly innocuous weirdos to overt reactionaries. In less than twenty-four hours, the episode has already garnered well over two and a half million views and, judging by its reception thus far, Sanders and his arguments proved a hit — even to those accustomed to getting their political bearings from the likes of Sam Harris and other dubious sources.
There is a clear difference between appearing alongside a right-leaning host in order to agree with their right-leaning views and doing so with the goal of persuading their audience. Despite Rogan’s politics, the Vermont senator arguably got a fairer hearing than he typically gets from major cable networks and, with more than an hour at his disposal, he was able to use the interview decisively to his advantage — delivering his key ideas and tying them together near the episode’s end with a pro–working class message contrasting his politics with Trump’s:
[My administration] is going to be filled with the best people, often from the working class itself, from the trade union movement, people who are gonna help us create policies that work for workers and not just the billionaire class.
By appearing on the show, Sanders successfully exposed Rogan’s audience to left-wing ideas many have probably never encountered before, without the compromising filter usually applied to them by the mainstream media or the typical bad-faith actors on the right.
This becomes clear from even a perfunctory survey of the episode’s comment section, which suggests that Sanders both reached and persuaded listeners who might not regularly encounter his arguments, or who would otherwise be inclined toward hostility.
A few samples:
“This was pretty great. Learned more about Bernie from this than any other source in the past 5+ years . . .”
“I consider myself a Republican, but I actually agree with a lot of what Bernie said here.”
“I have changed my mind on this man. Really great interview. This man needs to be heard.”
“I’ve watched media tell me this guy was a nut for years. After this interview I feel like he might be onto something.”
“I consider myself the exact opposite of a socialist, but Bernie is onto something taxing Wall Street 0.5% for every trade. It would create a more stable stock market as well as creating more revenue for this country . . . Plus, we already bailed them out sooooooo . . .”
“I was on the fence about which Dem I was voting for till I watched this video. Thanks Joe for asking great questions and giving Bernie time to answer thoroughly.”
“Bernie is only labeled as radical by a hostile media bought by the same special interests he wants to remove from power.”
Anecdotal as these are, there are quite literally thousands more in the same vein (anyone who suspects cherry-picking should scan the comments and see for themselves).
As with his April town hall on Fox, Sanders’s appearance on Joe Rogan showcased one of his most significant strengths: a capacity to puncture the ideological fog of war that permeates American politics and reach people typically written off as unreachable. By definition, this will always involve appealing to audiences that don’t get their news from MSNBC or bear the usual signifiers of middle-class cultural liberalism.
As Nathan Robinson writes:
Bernie Sanders . . . knows how to take popular discontent and tell people that their problems are not the fault of immigrants and people of color, but billionaires like Trump who hoard all the wealth and are casually destroying the planet. Every time Bernie goes up against Republicans you can see it, whether he is debating Ted Cruz or speaking at Liberty University. Bernie is the best existing messenger for the left because he knows how to sell socialism to everyone, to go to Iowa or West Virginia or Fox News and get everyone clapping for free college and the demise of Aetna.
Sanders’s ability to reach non-traditional constituencies and non-voters alike could make him a formidable candidate in a general election contest against Donald Trump. And if the ultimate goal is to secure a sweeping realignment of US politics rather than eke out a razor-thin electoral college victory against an unpopular Republican president, there is simply no alternative to persuading those previously written off as unpersuadable — even the ones who are into DMT and alien conspiracy theories.